Mind your language in this slacktivist, post-truth world

Rashmee Roshan Lall attempts to unpack how some words that define contemporary political culuture

The UK politician Boris Johnson recently called Jeremy Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump". Photo by Ben Cawthra
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Political junkies, lexicographers and social media users recently enjoyed a rare, shared moment of levity. It was over the terminology employed by a well known British politician to describe the leader of the UK’s main opposition Labour Party. Boris Johnson said that Jeremy Corbyn was a “mutton-headed old mugwump", sending smooth-talking politicians and skilled wordsmiths to scour the dictionary for what it meant. Hardly anyone knew the meaning of mugwump, even though it has featured in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series and in various Roald Dahl books and has been used twice by The Economist in the past 18 months.

Anyway, within hours, it was established that mugwump is a fine old word dating from the mid-1800s, with bona-fide trans-Atlantic origins and suitably multicultural roots deep within the Algonquian language, which is spoken by a Native American tribe.

Mugwump, it turned out, was a word rich in meaning. Once upon a time, it signified US Republican Party activists who switched sides. But it can also mean a person who is politically neutral. And it is an anglicised version of the Algonquian word for big chief. Furthermore, it rhymes with chump and sounds both jokey and clever.

Accordingly, mugwump was judged a great find for a world tired of ​prominent politicians’ one-or two-syllable prosaism.

But no one can predict if mugwump will continue to be popular, which brings us to the increasingly short-lived phenomenon of words in vogue. They have become just like women’s clothes, which suffered an exhausting decade of the trend called “fast fashion” – very now, very disposable.

Now, words and phrases increasingly have their own season. Whether new portmanteau formulations (vlog, sexting) or those reclaimed from linguistic obscurity (mugwump, ginormous), vogue terms spread quickly on social media and through journalese.

Often, they last no longer than a few days, one week, or a month. Sometimes, they demonstrate the sort of staying power that will eventually guarantee them a place in printed dictionaries. Weighty tomes such as the OED generally wait about a decade before they decide to include a word in the print edition.

Even so, vogue words can justifiably be deemed to serve a vital purpose. Not just because they allow users to sound trendy and plugged in, or, as the terminology goes, “fleeky” and “on point”. Vogue words capture, even if briefly, the changing preoccupations of our age.

From late 2013, for instance, “Euromaidan” has signified the pro-European sensibilities of former Soviet Union countries because Ukrainian protesters courageously congregated at Maidan Square in Kiev.

Last year, “deplorables” became fashionable after US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used it to describe Mr Trump’s supporters. The word went viral, both among Clinton supporters and opponents. At the time, Merriam-Webster dictionary reported a huge surge in online look-ups of “deplorable” and cannily handed down a lesson on the changing nature of language – that its “use as a noun is rare”.

Just like “deplorable”, there are many vogue words that have been around for ever but pique interest because of news events. In the process, they become useful linguistic markers of the public mood at a certain point of time.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor, recently said that the precise dictionary meaning of the word “fact” became hugely popular after Mr Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts”. The same happened with “fascism”, “socialism” and “democracy” because people sought to make sense of political developments and terminology as accurately as possible.

Then there are new vogue words such as Brexit, slacktivism and chillax. Some of these seem likely to hang on and make the print dictionary. Brexit because it is likely to be a long process and will almost constantly stay in the news. The others because they are ideal blends; smoothly packing two meanings into one word just like a portmanteau.

This trend has stayed strong for decades – motel, motorcade, smog, Bollywood, bionic, stagflation, televangelist, emoticon are just a few examples. And our celebrity-obsessed age improved on it with “Brangelina”, the blended name of the Hollywood former couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. After Mr Trump’s election, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared’s portmanteau name “J-vanka” has increasingly started to find mention though it’s probably safe to say it will be in vogue only as long as the Trump family is in power.

Linguistic trend-spotters say that is likely to be true for a number of words that have recently become fashionable. For example, “bigly”, which is Mr Trump’s New Yorker pronunciation of big league. So too “post-truth” and “fake news”, both of which are associated with the habits and preoccupations of his administration.

This is consistent with the constantly changing nature of language, as noted by Samuel Johnson, who compiled one of the most influential English dictionaries. Back in 1755 he said change was inevitable for “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride”.

In contemporary speak, Johnson was keeping it real.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs

On Twitter: @rashmeerl